A step of great importance that will mark the history of aviation, at least English, was the F-35 debut, the latest a/c of the Lockheed Martin, the Joint Strike Fighter, at the international airshow of Fairford , that aviation enthusiasts use to call the ‘Tattoo’.
At Fairford were held the tests of the presentation of the new fighter, that, after a week, it was the star of the Farnborough Air Show.
Tests in style, accompanied however by a large marketing hype to be addressed to a wider audience, starting from the fans, to go to the experts of the sector and the companies involved in the project, to get to the governments of the countries in the process of deciding and evaluating the F-16 replacement, now the backbone of much of the NATO, after watching and saluting the gradual disappearance of the Tornado in the western skies.
Since a long time Fairford has been going on with its task of being the venue where the first fruits are presented to the western public: I quote some: the Tomcat in 1976, the MiG-23 in 1991, the Typhoon in 1995, the V-22 Osprey in 2006 end up with the Japanese Kawasaki P1 last year.
The debut of the F-35 was skipped two years ago when a fire at the Pratt & Whitney F135 engine destroyed an airplane; as a precaution the entire fleet at the beginning of 2014 was grounded pending the outcome of a deep investigation: although there was still a slender hope of seeing it then in the English skies, the prudence of the US government got the better on those who wanted it immediately as guest in Great Britain.
Visitors at the Royal International Air Tattoo, this year attending Fairford in more than 150,000 units, according to the organization’s estimates, were the first, outside the US, to see with their own eyes the state and capabilities of this supersonic aircraft and stealth in full three days of performances, accompanied by his older brother, the F-22, returned after some years of absence in the english skies.
The stars of the show were two F-35B belonging to the U.S. Marine Corps, the model that Britain will purchase, together with a third one in the English livery and markings. The F-35B, in V.S.T.O.L. version (Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing – Editor’s note) at the R.I.A.T. has amply demonstrated the typical capacity dell’Harrier and much more.
I wrote the word ‘hype’ in my introduction: for months in Britain many have been talking on the theme ‘F-35’.
From the Minister of Defence who stressed that “the introduction of the F-35 in R.A.F. and in the Royal Navy, weakened for a long time by the grounding of the Harrier, is a milestone in the evolution of our air force; allowing the domestic industry to contribute to the construction of the F-35 for a 15% of the whole project. Earlier, the then Prime Minister, Mr. David Cameron, announced earlier this year that would speed up the purchase of the first 24 a/c and that this decision will allow to equip the first two squadrons of first line – one is the NAS 809 that was moved to the RAF base of Cottesmore together with the remaining R.A.F. Harrriers before the grounding and sale of the entire fleet – which will operate from two new British aircraft carrier starting from the April 2023; some time later, in May, at a press conference in London, was echoing the F-35 commander Air CDRE Harvey Smyth, informing the press that “The 617 Sqn, the Dambusters, previously on the Tornado, will be the first R.A.F. Squadron to fly the new fighter, ahead of the target date of January 2018 “.
Andy Armstrong, Air Tattoo Chief Executive, in one of his first speeches,thinking of the public who would have attended the show this year, stated: “Undoubtedly, the F-35’s view in the English skies will be a common thing for future generations but, this weekend, all those who will be here will be pleased to give a first look at this future. In all these years the Tattoo had the honor to debut the most iconic birds in the European skies but very few have been as important as this aircraft which will allow new defense capability like the F-35. ”
Next to the F-35, made its welcome return the F-22, one of the crown jewels of the military aviation of the U.S.A.F. to demonstrate, if ever we had forgotten it, some of the unique capabilities of this 5th generation fighter: in its performance it is clear that the pilot holds firmly the reins of this thoroughbred, and not to reveal the real possibilities of this machine and to give the audience a stunning performance, pleasant and not deafening, but very attentive eyes see with what quickness and agility, thanks to its motor ‘thrust-vectoring’ (that is the ability to change the engine thrust in a different direction from the longitudinal axis as all jets do. Editor’s note) responds to commands in making sport-bike curves and make an arc of 360° degrees in the narrow perimeter of the base, in the past the performance of the A-10 only. The F-22 comes back after an absence of six years in the firm hands of Major Dan ‘Rock’ Dickinson, who belongs to the F-22 Demo Team, based in Virginia, at Langley, tail code ‘FF’, 1 ° Fighter Wing.
In 1991 it was declared the winner of the U.S. Air Force tender launched to find the air superiority fighter of the then new generation; the first standard model flew 6 years later and entered service in December 2005. The F-22 can rely on its design characteristics that make ‘invisible’ or ‘stealth’, as we say today usually, to enemy radars which were designed to track down aircraft with a very different signature.
Add that it is equipped with an extensive suite of advanced sensors that allow it to cope with the air-to-air threats without being ‘seen’. Also used in the missions of Close Air Support or ground attack, the F-22 has proven itself well in Syria in September 2014, using a panoply of precision bombs (precision-guided weapons – editor’s note).
Again, Andy Armstrong, Air Tattoo Chief Executive, adds, at the closing of his speech “The Air Tattoo, this weekend, will look at the future and few planes will be able to emulate the characteristics and agility of the F- 22 here in our circus. But above all, the presence of this agility champion at R.A.F. Fairford merely highlights the special friendship between the Air Tattoo and the U.S. Air Force, and that gives us hope for a return next year for the weekend 14, 15, 16 July 2017.
Now I give space to the photos, they speak better than words. I think you look at them before reading the article, I would have done so, if I were you. I just hope I have convinced you to be there in 2017, promising about 250 aircraft … but also the English sky which is … surprising. In any sense. Alas grey, yes, but when you least expect it, blue! The maxim which is always valid, is: a clear day save the whole trip.
Text and photos: GIANLUCA STORTI and FRANCO GUALDONI.